Until fairly recently, it looked like Michelle Obama was destined for the same public drubbing as Hillary Clinton, the only other First Lady to enter the White House with a law degree. It’s hard to remember this now, but the two have an awful lot in common. Michelle grew up just 25 miles from where Hillary did, also in a modest home with a homemaker mother. In high school, she too was ambitious and straitlaced, working hard enough to attend both a fancy college and law school (Princeton followed by Harvard, rather than Wellesley followed by Yale). She too became known as the family hard-ass (Michelle’s friends nicknamed her “the Taskmaster”). She too drew a higher salary in the private sector than her husband did in the public.
And like Hillary, Michelle discovered that any frank expression of her opinions on the campaign trail would instantly boomerang. When she ribbed her husband for his morning breath and all-around hopelessness when it came to putting away the perishables, Maureen Dowd wrote that some found her jokes “emasculating.” When Michelle told an audience in Milwaukee, “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country,” the observation was regarded as only a shade less apple pie than Hillary’s “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies,” and with the added valence of racial suspicion: Michelle was an “angry black woman,” in the words of syndicated columnist Cal Thomas; “Mrs. Grievance” according to the cover of the National Review.
Yet by the time Michelle declared that her primary role in the Obama administration would be “mom-in-chief,” it had the ring of total plausibility, drawing far less contempt than Hillary received when she offered America her chocolate-chip-cookie recipe. The question is: Why?
Some of the differences, surely, can be chalked up to temperament and upbringing: Michelle’s campaign speeches teemed with warm anecdotes about her own stay-at-home mother, recently prompting The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates to muse, “In all my years of watching black public figures, I’d never heard one recall such an idyllic youth.” (Hillary’s father, on the other hand, made minor sport of humiliating his wife, according to Carl Bernstein’s A Woman in Charge.) Hillary generally framed her role as mother in policy terms (It Takes a Village), while Michelle tended to discuss hers in a more immediate, emotional vocabulary. One thinks of the moment in her convention speech when she described Barack driving home, white-knuckled, with their first child, “inching along at a snail’s pace, peering at us anxiously through the rearview mirror.” In one spare and true image, she managed to connect with her audience in a way that Hillary never did.
But perhaps an even bigger reason that Michelle’s East Wing ambitions seem authentic to us is a generational one. Hillary graduated from college in 1969, that extraordinary cusp year for boomer women, when it seemed that half the nation’s female graduates chose child-rearing as their main occupation while the other half marched boldly into the workplace, keeping custody of their last names and wearing the pants. (At her best friend’s wedding, Hillary wore a tux.) Working was a politicized choice, made against a politicized backdrop (the women’s movement, the civil-rights movement, Vietnam), with politics itself beckoning as a vocation. Yet many of the women who chose to work were still forced to make radical compromises. Just after law school, for instance, Hillary had a wealth of professional possibilities to choose from up north. But instead she followed Bill Clinton down to Arkansas, a virtual swampland for career women. She was savaged for keeping her last name and forced to pour tea for the ladies in the front rooms of the Governor’s Mansion while the men talked politics in the back. (“This,” one of Hillary’s friends told her, according to Bernstein, “is like mind Jell-O.”) It was a recipe for lifelong resentment.
By the time Michelle Obama came along, however, the age was both more and less progressive. Banking and corporate law were more appealing to her college cohort than political activism, but far more women were joining the workforce. They’d seen the generation before them attempt—imperfectly, but still—to balance work and family. If anything, Barack helped Michelle expand her professional horizons, encouraging her to leave her banal job at a big Chicago law firm for the more self-determining work of community outreach (for which she made as much as $315,000 annually, as a hospital executive). She, in turn, introduced Barack to a number of figures who’d prove influential to him, including Valerie Jarrett, his public liaison. When he won his Senate seat, Michelle wouldn’t so much as follow him to Washington, D.C., let alone Arkansas. The balance she and Barack have struck over the years has by no means been ideal. Her husband wrote about it with bracing honesty in The Audacity of Hope: “ ‘You only think about yourself,’ she would tell me. ‘I never thought I’d have to raise a family alone.’ ” But Michelle could at least talk with Barack about his absences. And her career didn’t seem to suffer much in spite of her choices.